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Embattled Unicoi clerk quits

JIM WOZNIAK • May 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Unicoi County’s Circuit Court clerk, whose office is under a state investigation over missing money, has resigned, but she said Saturday that the probe is not the reason.

Rather, Christy Howard, who served as clerk from 2004 until she quit Friday night, said in her resignation letter that a variety of personal issues led to her decision, which was effective immediately.

“With all of the overtime I have worked, I have lost precious time with my children and family that I can never get back,” she said. “It has also taken a toll on my health, with added stress causing many problems.”

Circuit Court Judge Tom Seeley, the presiding judge in the 1st Judicial District, said the County Commission has the authority to appoint an interim clerk to serve until the next county election in 2008. He said judges who hold court in Unicoi County will recommend a candidate to the commission.

“I guess I’m somewhat pleased that she resigned because I don’t think that office has been running properly for the last several months,” said Seeley, whose office is located in the Unicoi County Courthouse. “I think there’s a clear lack of leadership on Christy’s part that caused the office not to run like it should.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has probed missing money in the clerk’s office since early in the year. An audit has revealed a cash shortage of more than $21,000 and 143 checks and money orders from the public were deposited but not receipted. Howard and all of her deputies have taken lie-detector tests. She said she is innocent, and many people in the community have spoken highly of her in letters to the editor in newspapers.

Howard and Sheriff Kent Harris said they did not know the status of the TBI case. District Attorney General Tony Clark and County Mayor Greg Lynch could not be reached for comment Saturday.

“I was very naive and far too trusting, and this made things much worse on an already extremely demanding position,” Howard said in her resignation letter. “I just pray that the pending investigation in the office comes to a swift conclusion and has the proper resolution.”

Howard is the second Circuit Court clerk in Unicoi County in the last four years to resign in the midst of an investigation. Gregg Masters quit in 2003, five days after the FBI shut down the clerk’s office. He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in 2005 to stealing more than $10,000 from the office and was sentenced to three years of probation, including six months of home confinement.

Howard submitted her resignation to Harris on Friday, and copies of the letter were delivered to county commissioners on Saturday. In the letter, she thanked Unicoi Countians for letting her serve as clerk and cited a tripling of revenue and a fully computerized office as accomplishments during her tenure.

“It’s just what I needed to do for my family, and it’s something I’ve been considering for a while,” she said Saturday of her resignation.

Harris said he notified Seeley and Clark on Friday and said he and Lynch called a state auditor on Saturday. In the past, when there has been a change in an office’s leadership, the state came in to close the books on the previous administration, the sheriff said. Harris said Clark also will come to the county courthouse on Monday.

According to Seeley, it will be important to appoint someone as interim clerk who has some knowledge of the court system, has an office background and will provide the necessary leadership.

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